In the United States, freedom is highly coveted and when it becomes threatened, freedom is fiercely defended. The first amendment of the Constitution promises to protect these freedoms, guarantees that the American people have the basic right to things like free speech, free press and the right to assemble. Other countries may not emphasise these rights in the same way, but people the world over want the freedom to be themselves and to be free from oppression and prejudice. Indeed, a world without those troubles would be a liberated one. However, are there other ways to think about freedom?
Abdu’l-Baha was imprisoned for 40 years but He stated,
To have been lodged in this faraway prison is for me exceeding joy…. This prison is my supernal paradise; it is my cherished goal… Rejoice in my bondage, O ye friends of God, for it soweth the seeds of freedom.
The Writings already introduce a view on freedom that stands in contrast to common thinking. For most people, imprisonment is the opposite of freedom and yet in that condition Abdu’l-Baha was still exceedingly glad. Perhaps this is a comment that true freedom is more than a physical state of being free but rather an attitude or spirit. For Abdu’l-Baha, nothing was more rewarding than service, and what’s greater than facing trials in the path of God.
This multi-faceted concept goes deeper. When it come to fleshing out an idea, sometimes it’s helpful to think about something in terms of what it isn’t. In society there is great emphasis on the total freedom of individuals; however, Baha’u’llah’s Revelation speaks of the necessity of moderation, which cannot be upheld in a state of absolutes. True freedom, then, is not catering to your every whim. Abdu’l-Baha verifies that acting moderately brings about the well-being of society,
the moderate freedom which guarantees the welfare of the world of mankind and maintains and preserves the universal relationships, is found in its fullest power and extension in the teachings of Baha’u’llah.
If moderate freedom guarantees the welfare of society, what is absolute freedom? That type of freedom is contained in the world of nature. The Writings say that the animal is the embodiment of liberty. Comparison can be made to the bird that is free to soar upon the wind. Directed by the whims of its desires, it goes where it pleases. That is the nature of the bird.
If people were free to do the same, it’s clear that society would quickly fall into disarray. It’s too easy to be self-indulgent or to take things into extremes. For example, leisure is necessary in order to relax and rejuvenate but if we only focused on relaxation then nothing would get done (including this article that I’m writing!). Liberty is the most constructive, the most useful when there are boundaries.
Man, unlike animals, has been endowed with a rational mind and has the free will to choose his own direction. Humanity is special because it has the distinct ability to rise above its condition. Abdul-Baha says,
through the Ideal Power he should be free and emancipated from the captivity of the world of nature; for as long as man is captive to nature he is a ferocious animal,
the animal creation is captive to matter, God has given freedom to man. The animal cannot escape the law of nature, whereas man can control it, for he, containing nature, can rise above it.
These words affirm that although we may witness the cruelties that are a result of poor choices, man has the God-given freedom to choose another direction, however difficult it may be.
Aside from trying to stay away from extremes, another aspect of freedom that is mentioned in the above quote, is not being captive to matter or the physical. These are the material comforts, the basic desires of the body. There are a number of places where the Writings tell us to turn away from getting caught up in the desire for riches and to free our hearts from the material things of the world. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have anything to do with the world or that it’s bad to want luxury, but that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about whether it’s given to us or taken away. Like Abdu’l-Baha, He had His material possesses taken away and His physical freedom as well, but He was still joyful because His troubles were in the name of God.
Humanity has been called to break free from the bondage of nature in order to develop and progress. In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah makes the conditions clear,
True liberty consisteth in man’s submission unto my commandments.
This is where things continue to get interesting. Isn’t submission the opposite of freedom? Well, think of it this way. In civil society, laws are created to help ensure the freedom of its citizens; and in this vein, institutions have been established in order to enforce these laws. Baha’u’llah’s Revelation has outlined a similar purpose. His Laws have been created in order to guide humanity and keep it safe so that it can be transformed.
If Baha’u’llah’s laws are applicable to all aspects of society, including our conduct, you may be wondering how freedom of expression is treated. The Writings do acknowledge the importance of being able to freely express oneself. One arena is in Baha’i consultation. Instead of making a decision based off of one idea, people are encouraged to consult with others. Those involved have the freedom to say what is on their minds (ideally in a frank and loving manner). The person can then get different sides of the matter and make a more informed decision. We can probably think of a time when we had tried to discuss something with other people, only to find that it’s more like others were trying to prove their opinion is correct, rather than engaging in a real sharing of ideas. In order for speech to be influential it needs to exhibit certain characteristics, so that it’s frank, but kind and loving. Where there is freedom of expression, boundaries are necessary to help it flourish.
Freedom and liberty have an important place in society. In general, the type of freedom that seeks to keep oppression and injustice at bay should continue to be fought for; however, other popular ideas of freedom can be viewed in a whole new way when examined in light of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation.